The 1968 Exhibit: BULLITT, starring Steve McQueen, released 1968


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Name one thing you know about Bullitt

Mention Bullitt to anyone who knows even just a little about movies, and I bet within 10 seconds the words "car chase" will be uttered.  And indeed, the car chase in this quintessentially 1968 film--vaulting through the (unusually quiet) streets of San Francisco and out into the northern California hills--is in some ways the granddaddy of them all.  Actually, the chase-- police detective Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen) in a now-iconic green "fastback" Mustang pursuing a couple of shotgun-shooting bad guys in a Dodge Charger-- was inspired by a chase in Robbery, the previous film directed by Bullitt's director, Peter Yates.  (This fact comes from Robert Osborne, host of Turner Classic Movies in his intro to Bullitt a few nights ago.)

The Bullitt car chase is, however, anything but derivative or tame.  Anyone who saw this movie when it first came out remembers being blown away by the stomach-churning drops and turns of the chase, which starts about an hour in and goes on for nearly 10 minutes.  There is not a word of dialogue, and the jazz score is only there at the beginning--otherwise, it's all screeching tires and revving motors.   Amazingly, even on television the chase still works on a gut-punch level.

More than just a car chase.

But Bullitt is a lot more than just a car chase, classic though it is.  Saturday Review in its year-end 1968 issue, put Steve McQueen at dead center of its cover-story photo montage of "The NOW Movie" (see earlier post in Covering 1968).  It's not exactly an "art film"--it's still essentially a police procedural--but something about its affect and daring makes it feel different, edgy, smart. (Yates is British, after all, part of England's astoundingly inventive 1960s film scene).  Take the credit sequence--so dark it's nearly black-and-white, with some groovy graphics matched by some cool jazz--lots of horns and brushed cymbals--by Lalo Schifrin. Shattering glass, gunplay and screaming car action start right away.   The camera does a lot of tracking, and not just of moving vehicles; everything seems to be in motion, jittery.  There's an extended, Hitchcockian chase -- on foot-- across an airport runway filled with taxiing jets. An emergency room surgeon is African American. Frank Bullitt has that cool disregard for the rules that came to be a standard trope of movie cops. As he says to the unctuous, corrupt politican played by Robert Vaughan, in what became the movie's most-quoted lines:  "You believe what you want. You work your side of the street, and I'll work mine."   The movie ends abruptly, wordlessly, ambiguously.

The look of 1968

Of course, one of the pleasures of movies set in the here-and-now of 1968 is being able reimagine that world:  If a gangster needs to make a call, he asks the cabbie to pull over at a pay phone.  Everyone in the boarding line at a very crowded airport is dressed up--men in suits and ties, women in dresses, hats, and stockings. "High-tech" police equipment--shown in close detail--is a copy-transmitting machine that's hooked up to a phone receiver.  There's still an Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco--it was torn down in 1991--and there are still airlines named PanAm and TWA.  Bullitt heats up his instant coffee with a little immersion heating coil.   ER nurses wear crisp little hats.  (Oddly, however, there's little or no drinking or cigarette smoking--it's not Mad Men.)

Violence as a way of life

But it's not just the amusing period details that tell us this is 1968:  There is a lot of violence in Bullitt--not street violence, or racial violence--but it's still intensely public.  There's always a crowd witnessing the violence or the victims, and the director pans across the craning necks, the milling around, the murmuring.   And late in the movie, after Bullitt's girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) sees Bullittt dealing with a gruesome murder scene, she confronts him with some harsh words, and suddenly Bullitt starts to seem like less like the maverick anti-hero and something closer to the Everyman of 1968:  "With you, living with violence is a way of life, living with violence and death.  How can you be part of it, without becoming more and more callous?  What will happen to us in time?"  Bullitt's answer:  "Time starts now."